Reporting on our community development work – are our priorities correct?

Working on a government-funded anti-poverty programme brings with it the inevitable duty of regular reporting on progress. Communities First/Cymunedau yn Gyntaf is no different. Though the format has changed numerously, quarterly and annual reports have been a way of life for the programme for a number of years.

Reporting the incremental progress against planned objectives, which are themselves increments towards aspired-for, longer-term outcomes, is a primary purpose of the reports. The other primary purpose they serve is to accompany financial claims to government for the money that pays staff, funds premises and activities and fundamentally helps lever in funding from elsewhere. The ‘bottom line’.

However, it is commonly held among community development workers that acknowledgement by government officials of the reports let alone comment on their content, is rare, especially for quarterly reporting. It is also commonly held that doing the reports is a bind. They tie community development workers to their desks reducing their visibility to the community; they divert development time from community engagement and contact; and long-term community change is difficult to illustrate over short quarterly increments. Governments no doubt recognise that tying workers to their desk is not cost-effective use of public money, and I am sure civil servants do not wish to read reams of information. There is a real danger that a vicious circle occurs where reports that don’t tell very much, are sent to government officials who don’t feedback their comments to the authors, who hated the process of writing the reports in the first place and are now dreading even more the next reporting milestone.

It does community development a massive disservice for the reporting process to become such a burden and stress. And necessary as it is to ‘get the [public] cash in’, and be accountable for the spending of it, community development workers need not be beholden to government officials and the timetable they set us. Yes, they are important but why do we place them on a pedestal to the extent that we do.

As a general rule I believe we can do more to report progress to strategic partners, local stakeholders, other funders and, perhaps most importantly, the communities in which we work. If we do this on a more routine basis we will be gathering the data and narrative required for the government reports (thus making the exercise of compiling these less time-consuming) and the feedback we receive from these complements and validates our narrative.

For instance, if residents in a street anecdotally report that anti-social behaviour, which they rarely report to the police, is down for a third consecutive quarter then the dialogue that community development workers can initiate with the police, community safety, housing and youth services that might corroborate or contextualise this anecdotal narrative is far more informative to government. And in informing and reflecting our practice.

Such a scenario doesn’t reduce community development workers’ visibility and doesn’t bureaucratise their work; rather it enhances its credibility and is probably of value to the partners.

Neither should community development workers confine their reporting to merely the written print form. Use of online blogs to report achievements on a regular basis and to locate snippets of evidence (e.g., satisfaction survey results, testimonials, before-and-after pictures, digital stories) provide a visual means for communities, groups and partners to be involved in the reporting process. Inclusion of hyperlinks in the government reports to such online evidence allows for more to be communicated with fewer words and email attachments.

Why not consider reporting via the spoken word with simple, short video blogs (‘vlogs’). These can provide for the communication of the headline issues that more detailed written reporting can follow up. They are also more likely to catch the eye of people in the community, the media and partners. They too can be publicised via hyperlinks on social media, written reports and emails. Web 2.0 internet platforms and digital technologies also enable communities, with the right support and inspiration, to report change for themselves thus simultaneously freeing-up community development workers, empowering themselves and fostering an organic civic engagement by doing rather than being told. Naysayers will always find it easier to dismiss evidence if paid or vested individuals are reporting it. In a community development context communities reporting change themselves is extremely powerful.

Adopting this approach to reporting and evidence collection reports to government become an exercise in ‘mopping-up’ the most informative and illustrative data and narrative; literally (and unapologetically!) a cut n paste exercise from other sources; and a more reflective exercise for community development workers. It also removes the pedestal from beneath government officials, empowers and involves communities, fosters partnership working and encourages the use of technology.

Sadly, it doesn’t guarantee for any acknowledgement or feedback from government officials…

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